Every day hundreds of people drive by a 180-year-old, two-story house at 355 E. Parkside Avenue in Lombard oblivious to the historical and cultural importance of its builder — ardent abolitionist and now-famed folk painter Sheldon Peck.
But the site is likely to get a big upsurge in visibility with its June 4-Aug. 31 presentation of more than 15 of Peck’s portraits — the first such solo exhibition since a retrospective at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art in 1976.
Even before its opening, “Sheldon Peck: Footsteps of His Life” has been featured nationally in such magazines as the Vermont Art Guide and Midwest Living, and more than 30 requests have poured in from East Coast art enthusiasts wanting the accompanying 61-page catalog.
“This is a big deal,” said Sarah Richardt, executive director of the Lombard Historical Society, who curated the show. “It’s probably the biggest thing we’ve ever done. I know it’s the largest budgeted event we’ve ever done.”
The historical society raised $100,000 for the project, including the costs of the catalog and a documentary that was produced first and has been used as a fund-raising and marketing tool for the soon-to-open exhibition.
In the ranks of American folk artists, Richard Miller, a former curator at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg, Va., and a leading authority on Peck, puts the 19th-century portrait painter “way up there at the top.”
Indeed, he believes that the folk-art classification is actually too limiting in Peck’s case. “That definition is a bit insulting when applied to Peck’s work,” said Miller, who served as an informal exhibition consultant, “because this man was incredibly skilled. He had a great imagination.”
Peck (1797-1868) began painting around 1820 in his native Vermont, adopting the European-tinged, folk-art portraiture tradition that began in major cities along the East Coast and later filtered to non-urban areas in New England and the South.
“He developed a recognizable style very early in his career,” Miller said, “one that to me is evident throughout his painting career. And like any good artist, his work changed. He became more ambitious. His portraits became more decorative. Late in his career, he was painting portraits of family groups that have few precedents in American painting at that time.”
A prime example of these group paintings is included in the exhibition — an 1846-47 portrait of the John J. Wagner family of Aurora that includes eight full-length figures and a dog. Wagner is shown holding a copy of the Western Citizen, an anti-slavery paper that he edited.
After living for eight years in Jordan, New York, Peck and his family migrated in 1836 to Chicago, where he had an address on Lake Street. A year later, they settled in Babcock’s Grove (now Lombard), where he built his timber-frame home on 160 acres of land.
Throughout his life, Peck painted the prominent people in the small towns where he lived — state senators, land owners, leading tradesmen and retired judges, portraying them with resolute facial expressions that were typical of the time.
He employed what Miller described as a “hard-edged style,” adding trompe l’oeil (fool-the-eye) wooden frames and often incorporating a decorative motif that consisted of a long brush stroke flanked by two shorter ones. It can be seen in several works in the exhibition, including along the lace collar in the portrait of Lucia Hill Day Burgess.
According to Miller, about 130 works by Peck are known to exist (only one is signed). Another 65 or so have been attributed to the artist, in some cases as attempt to increase their value, but he doubts they were actually created by the painter.
Four generations of Pecks lived in what is now known as the Sheldon Peck Homestead, and descendants of the artist still reside elsewhere in Lombard. His great-grandson donated the house to the Lombard Historical Society, and it opened as a museum in 1999.
Peck was what Miller called a “radical abolitionist” who believed in granting full citizenship and voting rights to slaves. Because he served as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, helping freedom seekers on their way to Canada, the homestead was officially listed on the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom in 2011.
The exhibition is spread across three first-floor rooms of Peck’s home, which had to be upgraded with improved security and lighting to accommodate the artworks. On view are examples from all three states where the artist lived, with the preponderance of selections from his time in Illinois.
The pieces come from area organizations like the Aurora Historical Society, Elgin History Museum and Illinois State Museum, and from private collections. Several have never been shown publicly before, including an 1825 oil on board, which is split between a portrait of Ichabod Babcock on the right and a depiction of his tanning vats on the left.
With this show and the publicity surrounding it, Richardt hopes residents of Lombard and the larger Chicago area gain what she sees as an overdue appreciation of the artist and his legacy. “I want people to understand that Sheldon Peck was a person of worth,” she said, “that he is a person to know.”
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.